I have been selected to sit a court martial. No, don’t worry; I haven’t been accused of anything… that I am aware of. No, I have been selected to sit as a member of a court martial, which is kind of like being selected for jury duty, except that instead of wearing an uncomfortable suit, you wear an uncomfortable white uniform.
I can’t really tell you much about what it is like to actually serve on a court martial. This is partly due to the sensitive nature of the trial, but mostly due to the fact that I really have no idea what happens in a court martial because all I have really done is wait around.
Seriously, this is the nuclear version of the Navy’s policy of “hurry up and wait.” In one day of my assignment I have spent at least 6 hours waiting around. Not all at once. They were kind enough to break it up a bit.
It all started at 0700 on Monday morning. We all showed up in our whites ready to dish out Navy justice, or at least ready to avoid receiving Navy justice for failing to show up on time. After going through what felt like a TSA airport security screening we were all escorted to the deliberation room, which is defined as room designed for 5 people filled with 15 people and a coffee pot (this was a very important feature.) At this point we were ready to receive our instructions on what to do. What we didn’t do is receive instructions on what to do. We filled the time making small talk and speculation on what exactly we were expected to do. This involved quite a lot of A Few Good Men and JAG references. This was all we could do. Phones were not permitted and so we were unable to check Facebook or Wikipedia or play angry birds.
It’s weird in the 21st century to be without your smart phone and connected to the internet at all times. Without a smart phone there is no way to avoid an awkward conversation. You know when you are chatting to someone you don’t really know and the conversation lulls to that uncomfortable silence, so you glance down at your phone and display a facial expression that you might use if the president had texted you personally to ask you opinion about something you are an expert on (such as how to get past level 12 on the latest Angry Birds app… let’s be honest, that’s pretty much all you are an expert on.) Also there seems to be no way to determine who is wrong when you reach a disagreement. We’d be there conversing about something going on in the world (or possibly not going on in the world) and I was unable to fact check them. It was very frustrating. I was forced to simply argue or just silently judge them for being so stupid as to have a different opinion than me.
Fortunately just when we thought that we were never going to get any guidance, someone came in and told us that they were still working on some issues and that we should come back in an hour. So we all headed out through security and outside where we realized we had left covers up in the deliberation room. So after going back through the TSA security gauntlet, retrieving our covers and heading out we had just enough time to go back through the security check point in order to be on time for… well to be honest I’m not sure, not a whole lot happened when we got back to the room.
We ended up waiting around for another hour wondering just what was going on. We passed the time making the uncomfortable small talk that inevitably occurs when you place officers and enlisted from varying communities in a confined space with no particular purpose. Most of all we speculated about the reason for the courts martial, which it turns out we weren’t supposed to do, but since no one had spoken to us yet, we didn’t know this.
We didn’t have to wait long to find out, because in just over an hour someone came in and told us that they (it was never explained who they were) would be ready for us in short while (short taken in its loosest possible fashion) and we should just sit tight. This was good advice since we had been sitting very loosely up ‘til then.
Soon enough the bailiff came in and told us that they were ready for us. We were finally getting somewhere. We were led into a court room and led to assigned seats. As we walked into the court room the bailiff announced, “All rise,” and every one stood up.
Next the judge gave us some guidance which I would relay here but I really can’t remember what he said. There were a lot of “notwithstandings,” “peremptory challenges,” and, “Voir Dires” and I kind of drifted off. This, I discovered, is frowned upon in a court martial. We were then told to read the charges.
This is not as easy as it sounds. Charges are not written in any discernable version of the English language. Let’s say someone is accused of stealing. It would look like:
CHARGE I: VIOLATION OF THE UCMJ, ARTICLE 122
Specification1: In that Petty Officer Michael J. Limburger, U.S. Navy, USS IRON WILL, on active duty, did, on or about 13 July 2013, all reasons to the contrary notwithstanding, herewith and with full knowledge of the proprietary ownership of said bag of chips, placed the aforementioned bag under the edge of his trench coat for later consumption, to wit, without the required transaction, exchange of required monetary units, or the expressed and or written consent of the proprietor and major league baseball.
After reading the charges, we had a fair idea that this guy was accused of some pretty bad stuff. I won’t go into the things he was accused of since this is a humor essay and none the charges were funny.
Next it was time for the attorneys to determine if we were right for the case. This is the only time in my Navy career, that it was considered good if you had no idea what the Navy’s policies are. Obviously each attorney wants you to support their side. If you do the other one will not want you. It’s kind of like trying to impress your girlfriend’s father and your friends at the same time. The only hope you have to being selected (and you really have to wonder what’s wrong with you if this is your goal) is to be completely clueless about every Navy policy that pertains to the case. It turns out that I was perfect for this job.
We were asked a series of questions in which we answered yes or no to by raising our hand. Again this is not as easy it sounds, since all the questions are worded in the most complicated way possible. “Do you not agree that by not adhering to contrary practices following certain procedures can and should be documented by itinerate and loyal activities that would not bring discredit upon the individual or individuals unconnected with the case at hand. “
We would then raise our hand if the answer was yes. Eventually, after realizing that we were never going to be able to translate these questions into English, we just started raising our hands to everything. They could have asked us if jay walking should be punished by death and we all would have agreed.
Once that little activity was done we were excused for an hour for lunch, which meant that if we left right away we could have just enough time to get back in line to go through security to enter the building again. Then it was time for us to be Voir Dired individually. Voir Dire is French for, treat you like you are a criminal and ask you embarrassing questions in court in front of everyone. This again is where you find out that they want someone truly clueless (impartial) about Navy policies. After 17 years in the Navy, where I do NKO training every week but don’t really learn anything, it turns out that I was perfect for this job. It’s kind of a dubious honor when you find out that it’s good to be a dirt bag.
After it was all over I was told that I had been selected to continue for the court-martial. I was so proud of myself until I realized it meant that I had to stay for the court martial, which should start, if they keep to this time table, within next 5 years (but they want me there every day just incase.)